eirdre woke up with a headache and shuffled into the bathroom. Sunlight peeked through the blinds, and it comforted her to know that the night was definitely over. She looked herself over in the mirror and made an ironic smirk when she concluded that she didn’t look too bad. Yet the back of her head still ached. She massaged her head gently and decided it was nothing to worry about—just a small bump, where her head had hit the doorknob after Nate shoved her. Could have been worse. She put her hair up with a clip and popped two Advils. It was Sunday.
Nate, who usually woke up first, was spread out on the couch watching a fishing show. He wore baggy warm-up pants, a soiled white Steelers cap pulled backwards and a sleeveless Superman T-Shirt. He always wore sleeveless T-Shirts, no matter the weather. He’d often said that he worked too hard on his biceps to cover them up.
“You were a real jerk last night,” Deirdre said. She walked between him and the television without looking at him.
“It’s always my fault, isn’t it?”
Their apartment on Pittsburgh’s South Side was nondescript—beige carpeting, white blinds and off-white walls that needed a fresh coat of paint. Scattered about were knick-knacks and pictures with a birdhouse motif, mostly in various shades of blue. Deirdre cleared the green beer bottles off the coffee table, and they clanged when she put them on the kitchen counter. She lit a cigarette and started coffee.
Nate came in and wrapped his arms around her narrow waist while she hovered over the coffee machine. His touch was soft. He curled his fingers and scraped them over her hips, and she knew she was in charge again. It gave her a rush that brightened her mood.
“I’m sorry,” he said, kissing the back of her neck.
She kept her lips tight and nodded.
“Forget it,” she said.
She didn’t want him to know that she was cheering up. He didn’t deserve to know that yet. He gave her one last peck and went to the refrigerator. He pulled out a bag of grapes and sucked them into his mouth, one at a time. She thought he looked cute when his lips puckered, but she fought back the urge to be kind.
She was a 28-year-old divorcee who knew when to be tough. Her divorce had gone through a year earlier, and she’d moved in with Nate six months ago. She had no plans to marry him but no plans to leave him. She’d moved to Pittsburgh from Vanango County with her first husband five years earlier, and she stayed after the divorce because she considered the city the place to be. Besides, her father was in a halfway house after causing a bad crash while drinking, and her mother had pushed through a divorce. Deirdre was also wary of moving back home with her mother, fearing that two divorced women who live together would never find their own man and be stuck together.
While Nate was only 24, she’d decided they were on the same cosmic wavelength. Those were the words she used one night when they were up late drinking, and he seemed to like that description. She loved that Nate worked so hard on his body, and she respected him for it. She liked his round cheeks and reddish-brown hair—even though it was starting to recede. When they were out at the Carson Street bars, she often noticed that other girls had their eyes on him. Yet he never looked back. He was faithful, and that counted for something. On their way out of the bar, Nate would drape his arm around her and they would walk out with a bounce in their step. She would feel jealous stares from other girls, and feel like a princess.
She had big brown eyes, a sharp jaw and cleft chin. She was skinny as a teenager but hated her body, especially her tiny breasts, and often wished she had enough money for a boob job. She’d hated her chin since she was a girl, but Nate claimed to like it. One night he rubbed his finger over it in figure-eights while they cuddled after sex and said, “It’s adorable.” She couldn’t remember her ex-husband—that fast-talking, cocaine-sniffing bartender whose eyes were always wandering, checking out other women—even mentioning it.
Nate closed the bag of grapes, stuck his head back in the refrigerator and pulled out an energy drink in a silver can. He took a gulp and wiped his lips with his forearm.
“Are you going to work today?” he asked.
“I guess. What are you gonna do?”
“Chest and back.”
Nate hunched forward, both hands on his knees, watching intensely as Marc wrestled with the curl bar. Marc was shorter than Nate, built like a fireplug, with thinning blonde hair and snake tattoos on each forearm. They’d met in the gym three years earlier and slowly became friends.
“Big guns! C’mon, big guns!” Nate said.
Mark groaned like a bear during his last curl. When he finished, he dropped the bar and it fell to the rubber floor with a thud. They smacked fists.
“Men of steel,” Marc said, catching his breath.
“I’m about done. You want that juice?”
“Meet me in the car in 10 minutes,” Marc said. “I’m gonna ride the bike and watch some girls.”
In the parking lot, Nate rapped lightly on the window of Marc’s car, and Marc let him in. Marc handed him a small paper bag with the bottle of steroids inside, and Nate forked over a thin wad of cash. When Nate got back to the apartment, he hid the bottle in his usual spot underneath the kitchen sink.
Deirdre came home from work Sunday evening with a carryout bag from Burger King. It had been a nice day at work—the restaurant was slow and she spent half her shift gossiping with another waitress. For the past four months she’d worked at the Cheesecake Factory—one of the trendy new eateries at the South Side Works, a block of shops and restaurants that served as testament to the power of urban redevelopment, named for the legendary steel mill that had been completely razed at the site in 1989—and tips were good and things were going well enough there. She considered the manager a young prick, but everyone else seemed fine. It wasn’t a job she wanted for the long haul, but she wasn’t at a place now where she could figure out what she did want.
Nate was watching football and seemed agitated. He was slouched on the couch, a half-empty beer bottle in one hand. There were two empties on the coffee table. Deirdre didn’t recognize either team’s uniforms—one baby blue and the other maroon and gold.
“Did you bet again?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
He glanced away from her, then looked back, eyeing the Burger King bag.
“Are you gonna eat that shit again?” he said.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said mockingly.
“That shit is so bad for you. When are you gonna fuckin’ learn?”
“Blowing your money on a football game is bad. When are you gonna fuckin’ learn?”
“I can’t believe you. I’m eating in the kitchen.”
She cracked open a beer and pulled a stool up to the counter. She emptied the bag, flattened it and dumped the fries on it. She bit open four packets of ketchup and squirted them into a blob.
She seethed. She chewed on the cheeseburger and kept thinking about his rotten tone when he said, “Shut up.” She whipped a fry through the mound of ketchup. She didn’t want him having the last word, and didn’t want him thinking it was okay to talk to her like that. Plus, he was ruining a good day again. She walked brusquely into the living room.
“Fuck you,” she said, and she felt triumphant.
She turned back to the kitchen, sat down and bit into the cheeseburger. She heard him coming into the kitchen but didn’t want to acknowledge him. She held her eyes down, angrily swishing another fry through the ketchup. Finally, she turned her head and felt his hand explode into her face.
The impact rocked her backward, and cheeseburger spewed out of her mouth and across the counter. She staggered off the stool but found her balance when her feet hit the floor. She grabbed her face and yelled, “Ah! You fuck!” He stormed back into the living room with a determined look on his face, but didn’t say anything. “You fuck!” she yelled again.
She straightened the stool and sat back down. Her face stung, and tears welled in her eyes. She rubbed her wounded face, pushing and probing with her fingers. He’d hit her with an open hand, so bruising was unlikely. Still, he’d never hit her in the face before. Until then, he’d shoved her, or grabbed and shaken her, and the worst had occurred the previous night when she fell backward and hit her head on the doorknob. She wrapped the Burger King bag and half-eaten fries into a ball and threw them away. She thumped through the living room, holding the side of her face and looking away from him. When she got to the bedroom, she turned and said, “Sleep on the fucking couch.”
She slammed the bedroom door and locked it.
Deirdre woke the next day and heard Nate getting ready for work, but she stayed inside the bedroom until he left. He didn’t ask to get into the bedroom for fresh clothes, which meant he must have pulled a wrinkled outfit from a laundry basket. When she heard the apartment door close behind him, she peeked underneath the bedroom blind and watched him get into the car, dressed in khakis and a dark-blue Polo shirt, and then drive away. He sold office supplies, and she knew that on Monday he’d be outside the city seeing clients in Monroeville, which meant he’d be gone all day. She examined her face in the bathroom mirror, and it looked fine. He apparently hadn’t hit her as hard as he could have, but her face still felt tender, like someone had just ripped a sticker off it. She imagined a bright, red sticker that read, “This is the spot.”
She had the day off but didn’t feel like being in the apartment. She threw open the bedroom blind and saw it was a gray day, one of those days when the clouds hang low over the Monongahela River. She showered, had coffee and decided to go shopping—but wanted to avoid all the stores near her job at the South Side Works. She drove down Liberty Avenue, past the car dealerships and fast-food restaurants, to the Galleria Mall in the South Hills. It was a suburban mall and had the feel of a quick escape from the South Side. The stores were quiet, and as she waltzed through the airy mall she felt relaxed for the first time all day. She bought herself an orange sweater with a matching turtleneck and a tiny sweatshirt for a friend’s toddler. She had won ton soup and a Diet Coke at the Chinese restaurant and went to look at cars. Clothes weren’t enough; she really wanted to treat herself.
On her way back Liberty Avenue she stopped at the Jeep dealership and looked at the Wranglers with the roll-off top. She couldn’t afford a new one, so the salesman, a burly guy with a well-trimmed beard, suggested a used one. She walked past the used Jeeps, not completely certain about splurging on one, and noticed the yellow-brick Beinhauer Mortuary next door. She thought, Why not, you only live once. So she took a canary-yellow Wrangler for a test drive, and it was a bumpy ride. The salesman said that was normal, and she thought it was a pleasing, rocking sensation—like riding in a chuck wagon. They went back to the dealership to crunch numbers, and the salesman made it work. He knocked $500 off the ticket price and gave her an extra $300 for the trade-in of her Purple Pontiac.
She drove back to the South Side in the Jeep and went to the Tiki Lounge on East Carson, where her friend Angie tended bar. The bar was dark and empty, except for three guys in slacks and dress shirts. One of the guys shot Deirdre a couple looks while she nursed a Coors Light and chatted with Angie. Deirdre leaned over the bar and, in a voice barely above a whisper, asked Angie if she knew the guys.
“They’re salesmen at a Ford dealer. They’re in here for happy hour sometimes.”
“I like the tall one,” Deirdre said.
“He’s a male slut.”
“Quiet. Here he comes.”
He reeked of self-confidence. He had wavy brown hair and a mouth that turned up at the corners, like he was always ready to crack a smile. He wore a sky-blue dress shirt with a broad collar, and smoked Marlboros and drank Corona.
“I love that belly shirt you’re wearing,” he said to Deirdre.
“I hear you get underneath a lot of belly shirts.”
He smiled knowingly—a full smile—and nodded toward the bar. “You’re friends with Angie, huh? Don’t buy into everything she tells you. We only went out once.”
“She didn’t tell me that.”
“What do you do?”
“Whatever I feel like.”
She finished her beer with a gulp and said, “Seriously.”
He ordered them each a Corona and she looked him over closely. She noticed that his chin bobbed upward when he spoke, and it annoyed her.
“I see you’re not wearing a ring,” he said.
He’s pushy, too, she thought. But he also seemed inquisitive, and she felt like she could tell him whatever she wanted. She began to feel like there would be no consequences with him, no matter what she said or did.
“Nope. I’m divorced. I threw the ring in the fucking river.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He eased backward, as if he needed more space to absorb what she had just told him. Around them, the bar started to fill up with a group of college-age kids and a couple of dreary guys who looked like regulars, and Angie was busy serving drinks.
“No biggie,” Deirdre said.
His chin was steady now, and he peered at her with big eyes. It was a genuinely curious look. “What happened?” he asked.
She eyed him cautiously. She got a whiff of his cologne and decided to test him. She felt an urge to see how he’d respond to the brutal truth.
“He used to knock me around some, but I could handle that. He finally cheated on me, and I couldn’t handle that.”
“I don’t get it,” he said. “We can send a man to the moon but don’t know how to treat each other right.”
It was a more sensible response than she’d expected, and it surprised her. She’d expected something simple, like “Wow.” Or something guttural: “What an asshole.”
“Do you think you know how to treat people?” she asked.
“Why don’t you let me take you to dinner? Hungry?”
He said, “Come on.”
She looked above the bar, at the wooden statue of a Tiki warrior, and it reminded her of her dad, the American warrior, the Vietnam vet, the alcoholic who had ruined his life. She remembered that her dad, until he wrecked his marriage by crashing his car with her mom in the passenger seat, always knew exactly what to say to her mom after a bender, always knew how to talk his way back into her good graces. She glanced down the bar and saw Angie pour a beer for one of the college-age girls, and she remembered that her ex-husband was a talker too, and she wondered what he’d have said to the college chick. Oh, he’d have said something, something cutesy, meant to get a laugh at least, a one-nighter at the most. The son of a bitch.
So Deirdre knew that it didn’t matter what a man said, and it didn’t matter what he did half the time either. As long as he’s faithful. That’s all you can really hope for.
As Jason waited for her answer, his eyebrows raised and mouth turned up at the corners, she felt an urge to mess with him. If she hurt him, maybe he deserved it—for something. For his one-nighter with Angie, maybe. Or with someone else, for sure.
“I am hungry,” she said. “But no thanks. I’m just going home to my boyfriend.”
“You have a boyfriend?”
“He’s a dickhead, too,” she said. She pushed her half-empty beer across the bar, waved goodbye to Angie and got up to leave.
A confused look crossed Jason’s face. “You mean I’m a dickhead?” he asked.
“I mean you’re all dickheads,” she said.
“Okay, take care,” he said. He gave a weak smile and a half-hearted wave that seemed to indicate surrender and turned back to his salesmen friends.
Deirdre slung her purse over her shoulder and headed for the door, her hips swinging as she walked. She enjoyed the moment—the lofty sensation of rejecting someone, after drawing attention from a stranger. No one in the bar watched her leave, but she imagined that everyone was.
Richard Fellinger is a writing teacher at Elizabethtown College and a former journalist. He is a nominee for this year’s Pushcart Prize, and he won the 2008 Flash Fiction Contest at Red Cedar Review. His stories have appeared in other journals such as Epiphany, Potomac Review, Willow Review, Westview and PANK. He lives with his wife and son in Camp Hill, Pa., and he is currently shopping a collection of stories about people from Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt.